Disappointments

Mom,

I put Frozen in Time on hold and am awaiting it eagerly.  Meanwhile, I just read a couple of highly anticipated 2013 books, one middle grade and one adult, and was deeply disappointed by both, so I thought I’d take the time to air my complaints in case you or anyone else wants to try to prove me wrong.

life after lifeFirst up is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  I first heard about this on Barbara Hoffert’s Prepub column at Library Journal, as one of “Barbara’s Picks.”  It also got a write up in PW as one of the Top 10 books for the Spring.  The gimmick of the novel is not terribly new, but still interesting: Ursula Todd is born on February 11, 1910, and lives out her life until an untimely death, at which point she starts over, never quite understanding that she has lived her life before, but getting strange hints of the future that bleed through from her past lives.  Her lives last from minutes (the first time she is born with her umbilical cord around her neck and suffocates) to a few years, to decades.  She dies of Spanish Flu (a few times), German bombs in London (many, many times), suicide, and more.

Atkinson’s language is gorgeous, and her prose creates a wonderful counterpoint to the story as she freely intertwines character’s memories of prior conversations or quick flashbacks into scenes so that the reader is always slightly off balance as to when each scene is taking place.  Atkinson is also an expert at weaving her ideas and themes into the most commonplace of dialogues.

Unfortunately, structurally, the novel is a shambles.  After the first few times Ursula is reborn, she starts to take some active control and try to prevent bad things that have happened, but then abruptly, this thread is dropped, and the reader is treated to several hundred pages of two or three of Ursula’s lives stretching out into WWII (and sometimes beyond) in which she seems to have no awareness at all of anything that has happened in her past lives.  On top of that, while I noted above Atkinson’s skill at integrating her themes into the novel, she has altogether too many ideas and themes to pursue and none of them seem to cohere.  At least one major component of the novel (in fact, a piece of it is the novel’s prologue) revolves around the fact that in several of Ursula’s lives she moves to Germany in the 1930s and becomes friends with Eva Braun, and therefore Hitler. So we are treated to the hoary old question of “would you go back and kill Hitler”, but that question doesn’t actually seem to pertain to the novel’s main concerns which surround more interior questions of how it is best to live and whether a person’s actions define one or vice versa.  This is all the more frustrating, because Atkinson doesn’t seem to want to grapple with the logistics of her gimmick: the “Hitler-time-travel question” is predicated on the theory that a tiny change in the past would have profound effects in the future.  But Atkinson isn’t willing to spend the necessary time and effort thinking this through as it affects Ursula, because despite all the changes in her many lives, her family seems to always stay the same, and Ursula herself seems to run into the same people over and over.  But there is no logic or consistency to how these encounters are applied.

There is also a major plotline–involving a girl (or sometimes two) who is found murdered in Ursula’s hometown–which is not exactly dropped but certain perfunctorily dealt with at best.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it with the conviction that this is an excellent example of why successful stories should be valued so highly: even with exceptional writing and an ambitious premise, Atkinson was unable to pull off a great story.

one came homeThe second book to discuss is Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home.  This one has four starred reviews already, and several good reviews from people I trust on goodreads, and I am absolutely flummoxed as to what they saw in it.  Actually very much like Life After Life, the primary problem is not prose or character, but plot and structure.  The brief summary: the setting is 1871 Wisconsin.  13-year-old Georgie’s sister Agatha has vanished, and when the Sheriff goes looking for her, he brings back a badly mutilated body with the same color hair and a dress Agatha wore, but otherwise unidentifiable.  Georgie refuses to believe the body is Agatha’s (in part because she blames herself for Agatha running away–she witnessed Agatha kissing her ex-boyfriend Billy, and told Agatha’s fiance, breaking up the engagement).

So Georgie goes off in search of Agatha, with Billy (for unknown reasons) coming along.  The structural problems start right away, in that Timberlake has no sense of pacing.  The reader is led to believe that this is either a mystery story about what happened to Agatha or a roadtrip story about Georgie and Billy.  In either case, it takes far too long to get out onto the road for the roadtrip, and far, far too long for the mystery to begin (over half the novel).  Once the mystery kicks in–it involves another red-headed girl and some counterfeiters–it is peppered with implausibilities and dei ex machina.  I won’t tell the ending (not for spoilers’ sake but because it will take up too much time), but basically, once we realize what has happened, it becomes clear that everything in the book had to happen exactly the way it did in the right order for the book to work, but there was no particular reason for those things to happen in that order.

On top of those concerns, unlike Atkinson, Timberlake doesn’t seem to have any clear idea of what theme or ideas she is trying to get across.  There are a number of half-hearted attempts at finding one, but it is as if she started writing without a clear sense of purpose, and then just kept going.

Life After Life isn’t out until April, but One Came Home is out now.  There are a lot of people who already love both of these titles, so maybe I’m missing something.  But for now, I’m putting these down as failed attempts.

- Mark

**Update: Unbeknownst to me, Betsy Bird was working on a post on One Came Home at the same time as me.  She has very different feelings about it.**

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Children, Teens

5 responses to “Disappointments

  1. Mark, you articulated SO WELL what did not work for me in Timberlake’s novel. I felt like it was grasping at so many things and kept missing them left and right. I never got a clear sense of Georgie, and I felt like the pigeon metaphor got so lost in the old time “road trip” element of the book.

    In short: it needed either a lot more or a lot less.

  2. Excellent review, Mark. It’s funny that I liked Timberlake’s books as much as I did. You and Kelly are by no means the only folks disappointed by it. Normally I’m a hard sell, so it’s weird to me my unadulterated adoration. I appreciate the other side of it.

  3. I found this via your link on Goodreads and am glad I did because I was beginning to feel like I was all alone in not seeing the love for this book. I didn’t have the same problems with the pacing. I felt it was fine for the story being told. My main issue was finding the characters flat and superficial.

    I completely agree with you about the themes though and felt the last couple pages were a sloppy attempt at moralizing that didn’t fit with the rest of the story.

  4. Mark: I thought of your post when I read this weekend’s NYTimes interview of Hilary Mantel, where she says of LIFE AFTER LIFE: “…ingenious and furiously energetic; it’s exhilarating to see a novelist at the top of her game.”

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